Just the thing for a chilly day!
I love chocolate. I'm sure that doesn't come as a surprise, if you've been around these parts for long enough. But I usually try not to just make recipe after recipe using chocolate as a central ingredient.
This month? Is kind of accidentally turning into a chocolate history lesson. Until February, we're going to be talking about different ways people have used chocolate to make food just a little more interesting and delicious.
To kick it off, we're going to talk about champurrado, a hot, thick Mexican drink that can trace its history back to the first people who discovered the joys of eating chocolate and is still enjoyed by people today! That's some serious longevity! It's basically hot chocolate, but with a secret ingredient that makes this have an incredibly unique texture and thickness. Even if it doesn't turn out to be your new go to hot chocolate recipe, you'll be glad you tried it.
Today was a perfect day for hot chocolate. Although it hasn't really gotten cold cold yet in my neck of the woods, it was rainy and kind of chilly outside. It was definitely one of those days where it felt like the sun never came out, so getting to curl up with a nice, hot, slightly spicy drink really hit the spot.
Chocolate was originally only consumed by the highest levels of Mayan and Aztec society, as the beans were extremely, extremely valuable and more often used as currency than a food item. The plants are actually fairly slow to grow and don't produce many beans, so they were quite the commodity in early Mesoamerica. Aren't you glad it's more plentiful now?
Mexican hot chocolate is something I've seen popping up on more and more menus lately, even though it's far from a modern invention. There's even a recipe for it in Josefina's Cook Book! It's generally hot chocolate (sometimes made with Mexican chocolate, sometimes not) with a little cinnamon sprinkled in, and is quite tasty. The one thing is that the drink you're generally being sold as Mexican hot chocolate isn't quite the authentic thing. Traditionally, the hot chocolate drink enjoyed by people in Mesoamerica since before European explorers first showed up has been thick, frothy, and included an ingredient that most American interpretations leave out: ground corn!
The more modern champurrado - which is not exactly the same as the Mayan drink, which was served cold and generally quite bitter - uses masa harina, the same finely ground corn flour that's key to a good corn tortilla. This might sound odd to American readers, but remember, we eat corn cereal and use other kinds of flours as thickening agents. This really isn't unusual at all!
Champurrado is just one variety of an atole, a hot corn drink, so if you're allergic to chocolate or not a fan of the flavor, there are other ways to enjoy this particular style of beverage. People also enjoy vanilla and orange flavored versions! Champurrado is enjoyed year round as both a breakfast and a snack, but is particularly popular at Dia de Muertos and Las Posadas, and is often served with tamales.
The recipe I tried out today was passed my way by Neth of American Girl Outsider a few months ago, and as I'd been planning on featuring some kind of Mexican chocolate drink for a long time, I tucked it away for when the weather got chilly enough to try out this particular tasty treat.
You can access it yourself on Serious Eats.com, and is actually pretty simple to make! I was a little nervous because sometimes it's hard with recipes like this to photograph your steps and keep cooking without causing some kind of an issue on the stove, but I managed just fine while juggling a camera, so you should do okay just cooking it without stopping to document every step.
You start off by putting in 1/2 of a cup of masa harina in a large sauce pan. You can find masa harina online if your local grocery store doesn't carry it, but fair warning, it comes in pretty large bags on Amazon, so you might be stuck with a lot of leftovers like I was. Now we're trying to find new recipes to try out with it!
You turn the burner on to medium and add three cups of water in a steady, thin stream while whisking constantly to make sure the corn flour doesn't clump up. It's not going to look especially thick at this point, but once you leave it alone to bring it to a simmer, you'll start to notice it thickening up.
Once it's simmering, you add in 1 cup of milk, 3 1/2 ounces of chopped dark chocolate, 3 tablespoons of brown sugar, and a pinch of salt.
Whisk this together until the chocolate's melted, and then toss in a cinnamon stick!
This needs to cook on the stove for five minutes over a low heat, so turn it down and start whisking. Don't stop! You don't want it to burn or get a weird skin on top!
Once you're done, you fish out the cinnamon stick and make the call if this is too thick or not sweet enough for your tastes. I personally didn't mind the texture, but did add a little more sugar to help mask the flavor of the masa harina, which was originally very, very present and just slightly off putting.
This drink is supposed to be served frothy, which can be achieved with a whisk, immersion blender, or a special wooden whisk called a molinillo. Historically, Aztecs would get the favored frothy consistency by pouring the drink over and over into a vessel from a fairly great height, which made it a little time consuming to make. Funnily enough, Spanish conquistadors originally didn't really get chocolate's popularity, but eventually, they caught on and helped introduce the drink to Europe.
One thing to keep in mind is that because this is so thick and filling, you might not want an entire coffee mug of it in one setting. Another word of warning straight from the author of the recipe: don't take a huge gulp right away! The beverage retains heat for a really long time, so you might burn yourself pretty badly chugging this down.
So, what were my impressions besides finding this way easier to make than I thought it would be?
Well, first off, when you let this sit, it really does become super, super thick, and get more like a pudding than a hot chocolate. This can be saved by putting in a little more water and whisking it while heating it back up again on the stove. It also can get a thick skin on top if you let it sit for a while, but it's not really unpleasant and can be stirred back into the rest of the drink, if you want.
I will say, I felt like this could have had more chocolate flavor in it. If I make it again, I want to experiment and see if adding more helps bring it out more. Adding more sugar definitely helped take the edge off the masa harina, but this wasn't quite as chocolatey as, say, Heritage Chocolate hot chocolate, or the hot chocolate at Hen and Heifer.
Still! It hit the spot and had just enough spice from the cinnamon to have a good, spicy edge to it that made it quite different from your average hot chocolate. I loved the thick texture, and was pleasantly surprised to find out how easy it was to get this liquid again after it had time to cool down. It wasn't a smash success with my taste testers, who all agreed that it could have been chocolatier, and a few of them didn't love the texture, but I liked it, and would be happy to experiment a little to see what else I can make with my giant bag of masa!
Stay tuned for more historical chocolate recipes!
While I curl up with another cup of champurrado and count my blessings this isn't snow!